Mere Television #2

The Cybermen of Doctor Who, 1968:

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The Cyber King, Doctor Who Christmas Special, 2008:

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Times change.

Please To Enjoy… #3

The Murder of Nancy the Prostitute, from

Oliver Twist (Lean, 1948)
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In professional wrestling, it’s called a faceturn. The etymology of the term is this: good guy wrestlers are referred to backstage as “babyfaces”, or simply “faces”. Bad guys are called “heels.” When a heel suddenly and dramatically turns on his fellow heels in support of a face, he effectively turns into a face himself. A faceturn.

One of the great faceturns in film and I suppose literature is when Nancy, the prostitute common-law wife of the altogether bad Bill Sikes decides to turn on Sikes and her childhood crime mentor Fagin, attempting to rescue young Oliver Twist from their clutches. In David Lean’s 1948 adaptation of Oliver Twist , Nancy is played by Kay Walsh, and it seems her contribution to the film is underrated. She’s hardly the flashiest character in the story, but she may be the most emotionally important one. Readers of the novel probably identify with Oliver, but I suspect part of why that works is that in any novel, you partly conjure the character yourself, and can mentally avoid visualizations that might harm that identification. Trickier in film – an adult viewer has the image of Oliver defined for him, and it is a child, who looks a specific way, and he’s presented over and over. Hard to forget that you are not he. It’s very easy to feel for him and want to help, but unless you have some childhood memory of neglect or privation it may be hard to identify with Movie Oliver. This is where Nancy comes in handy – she’s a grownup, with grownup feelings and foibles. Of the adults in the film, she alone knows both dark and light, the rest being all straight bad’uns n’ good’uns. She presents the moral compass and satisfies our urge to help Oliver.

Now this is all tricky as an acting job and where I say Kay Walsh really helps this version of Oliver Twist succeed so well. She starts out working against Oliver at the request of Sikes/Fagin without a second thought. At some point she puts herself between the boy and his oppressors, and its not much articulated why she does it. Walsh has to sell us on her identification with Oliver, her maternal instincts, her realization that if a child has a path to avoid their life he jolly well should, and her own strength to stand against these possible killers. She has to do this without a lot of words or obvious motivation.

She succeeds. We root for Nancy and she is a plausible film savior for Oliver because Walsh makes her so. When this promptly leads to Bill Sikes coming to kill her, it’s the moral pit of the film. Not anything that happens to Oliver, it’s what happens to Nancy that is the ultimate crime.

Her murder scene is virtuosic work from Lean, his scriptwriter, his editor, everyone really. Ironically Kay Walsh contributes littlish to it, as she doesn’t last for long, and much of what does happen to her isn’t shown. It doesn’t need to be. The character’s moral presence still dominates even as a stiff in a room. This is a big part of where the 60s musical totally fails for me – a fluff Nancy, who’s fate doesn’t really matter for much amid the bouncy songs. Moral judgement is tossed out the window.

The scene is about four minutes long, and strikes me as its own little masterclass. If you want to make a case for Lean, you might just as well start here as soon as any bit of Lawrence of Arabia. Let’s have a look:

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Nancy sleeping in their hovel. She awakens to Bill Sikes looming over her.

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At first she’s happy to see him, this because she actually loves him. She’s managed to not give up his name in her attempts to save Oliver – her work is keeping Bill from doing bad, not injuring him in any way. Then she sees the violence in his eyes.

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She’s dragged from her bed by the hair and hammered to the ground by Sikes’ fist.

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Sikes retrieves a cudgel and swings down on her. This is where Nancy starts to die. Sikes’ dog watches, and here begins one of the great canine performances of all time. Really, the dog is great.

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The dog flings himself at the door and scrapes madly at it, trying to escape the murder scene. He looks like he may kill himself trying to get away. The blows continue.

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The dog keeps tearing, contorting, and a dissolve takes us out into the quiet of night.

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Night gives way as the lampman does his bit. Lean & co. stage an interesting triptych of encroaching day – three matched shots (not quite successive, but close) of new light coming through windows. First the grand stained glass of a church, next a random person’s house in the neighborhood, then the flapping curtains of Sikes’ place.

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Sikes has been sitting there staring at the body all night. The dog…the dog is shaking with fear. This is just a still, so it doesn’t come across, but he’s shaking, and presumably has been for hours. Did I mention the dog is great?

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We get some odd shots, trying to show but not show Nancy’s dead body. They end up being suggestive of dismemberment, making it all the creepier. He covers her with a blanket so he can finally stop staring.

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He regards the traces of her…her little table of a woman’s things, the bed they shared. The guilt is consuming him. Sikes’ motivation in most everything it seems to me is fear. Fear of capture drove his violence against her in the first place, and now guilt and new fear starts to root. For all his menace, Sikes is a very weak fellow.

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The camera pushes in on Sikes’ face, the lighting darkens everywhere but right on his face, the telltale old-time movie sign of internal monologue. He imagines Nancy telling him that Fagin lied , she did no wrong. Now this is sort of true, Fagin at least misled him. But Sikes can’t know that. He’s mentally trying to confer the guilt and responsibility for this murder onto Fagin.

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He fantasizes about killing Fagin with the cudgel, and that beaky fellow lying on the floor dead. But it is not Fagin. It’s still Nancy.

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As Sikes opens the door to leave, the dog bolts out and runs like mad. Sikes heads for his accounting with Fagin, and with Fate.

Wonderful stuff, really.

When Basil Met Nigel #4

It’s possible, of course, that there could yet be some late arriving package in the mail. But as things stand right now, I have to report I did not receive this mug for Christmas.

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Mouse On Cat Violence #2

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Merry Christmas From A Reprobate in Phoenix

Bad Santa(Zwigoff, 2003)

I don’t expect to post much on such recent stuff, but the season compels.

Bad Santa is mostly quite pleasingly ill-mannered. It ultimately capitulates to some sort of character redemption that is wholly unwelcome, short of balls, and a slap in the face to the slap in the face that the rest of the movie stands for.

Billy Bob Thornton has turned out to have rare gifts for depicting antisocials. It’s really no wonder he played Buttermaker in place of Walter Matthau in the Bad News Bears remake – indeed, it’s easy to picture Matthau making a version of Bad Santa circa 1971. Thornton’s Willie the Department Store Santa has a life focused on three things:

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Alcoholism

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Grand Larceny

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And sodomy.

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It’s often noted that folks in cold climates – Russia, Sweden, Alaska, etc – are especially susceptible to alcoholism. If that’s true, then consider the plight of a real Kris Kringle living in near-isolation at the North Frickin’ Pole: a wife thankfully, some inherently creepy elves, weird deer, and six straight months of night. He probably would be quite the alcoholic, don’t you think? Please enjoy these additional images of this bad, bad, Santa.

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Kid: Santa?
Willie: What?
Kid: I was gonna make some sandwiches. I could make you one before you leave.
Willie: Listen kid, I don’t know…I got shit to do…okay make me some sandwiches. I gotta go to the mall and talk to somebody and I’ll be back.
Kid: For dinner?
Willie: Yeah, that’s what I said, yeah.
Kid: How many sandwiches do you want?
Willie: Uh…a bunch.
Kid: How much lettuce do you want?
Willie: I don’t know. The usual amount. Whatever the hell people do. Just whatever you think.

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Posters We Don’t Own #5

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“Waitaminit, this movie has The Goofers in it? And Lord Flea? Based on this information, if you do not charge me at least double for this ticket, I shall surely strike you.”

Everyday Bava #2

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Kill Baby…Kill! (1966)

Please To Enjoy… #2

The Swimmer (Frank Perry)

Admonition about spoilers is heavily in effect.

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At first, the Swimmer is invisible, gliding through the forest past deer and owl, bushes rustling as he passes. Eventually he takes form, like a ghost made corporeal. For people who believe in ghosts, or like to think about them, it is often said the ghosts don’t understand they are dead, they wander through their past as if looking for something or someone, or as if it were still the salad days of their youth.

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He emerges from the woods directly into a backyard, a wealthy one, with a pool. He dives straight in and swims easily yet with strength. After a few laps, he is met – wherever he is, he is welcome.

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They are friends of old, this is their pool. They’ve not seen him for two years, how is he? Fine just fine. Just passing through the neighborhood. The Swimmer is accustomed to this wealth, and he charming, and a man’s man. He is, as Tom Wolfe would have it, a Master of the Universe.

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As he gazes over the neighborhood, and the large houses across it he knows so well, a realization hits him. The houses all have pools, all the way over the ridge and beyond.

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“Pool by pool, they form a river all the way to our house”

“I could swim home,” he tells his friends. They speak pleasantly back at him, but as one might humor a disturbed person.

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Undeterred, he begins (continues?) his Homeric odyssey, going from yard to yard, pool to pool. He encounters old girlfriends, the homes of childhood chums, pool parties, and Gorgons (one party guest is played by Joan Rivers). He exults in his strength, challenging a horse to a footrace. Master of the Universe.

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At one home, the pool is manned by a group of lazing young people. One of them is the now-grown daughter of an old friend. He’s shocked to see her childhood gone. After a swim, she joins him – a companion on the voyage.

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Sure of his own virility, his youth, his command, he plays with her, attempting to impress her with his speed and strength. But he’s not so young, and not so invulnerable, and not so appropriate. Playtime’s over, and she’s going back.

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Even an empty pool is a good place for a swim, for those with imagination.

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Another party, a big one, the kind The Swimmer is used to being invited to and being the life of. This time he’s crashing. The ghost is crashing.

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Battling monsters. The highway in his path, the community pool. This is where the proletariat swim. Proletariat water. Highly chlorinated. Madness. The easy smile has faded. Fear has entered his countenance.

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Maybe the world is not his to Master. Maybe it’s not such a beautiful day for a swim after all. Maybe it’s raining. Maybe some houses belong to the ghosts.

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It wouldn’t take much to dismiss this adaptation of John Cheever’s story (or the original story for that matter) as just far too odd a central conceit, too much to take seriously. But try just a little, won’t you? If it’s difficult, mentally replace Burt Lancaster with GW Bush. Imagine it’s him drifting along as if he owns the place, as if Privilege was a first principal, as if there were no questions or difficulties in life. Then imagine it is he having the veil removed, and being forced to acknowledge that actions have consequence, and that birth and breeding are no protection against reality and responsibility.

There, isn’t that better?

Posters We Don’t Own #4

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Terror From The Year 5000 (Gurney)

The Many Moods of John C. Reilly #2

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Confident

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